Watson v. Ford Motor Co.

Decision Date13 September 2010
Docket NumberNo. 26786.,26786.
Citation699 S.E.2d 169,389 S.C. 434
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesSonya L. WATSON, Stacy Watson, Curtis L. Watson, and Shirley Watson Individually and as Parents of Sonya L. Watson, Stacy Watson, and Thelma Watson, Plaintiffs,v.FORD MOTOR COMPANY, TRW, Inc., TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc., and D&D Motors, Inc., Defendants.Willie E. Carter, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Patricia Ann S. Carter, Deceased, Plaintiffs,v.Ford Motor Company, TRW, Inc., TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc., and D&D Motors, Inc., Defendants,of whom Sonya L. Watson, Stacy Watson, Curtis L. Watson and Shirley Watson, Individually and as Parents of Sonya L. Watson, Stacy Watson, and Thelma Watson, and Willie E. Carter, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Patricia Ann S. Carter, Deceased, are the Respondents,andFord Motor Company is the Appellant.

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C. Mitchell Brown, William C. Wood, Jr., Elizabeth H. Campbell and A. Mattison Bogan, all of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, Elbert S. Dorn, and Nicholas W. Gladd, both of Turner, Padget, Graham & Laney, all of Columbia, for Appellant.

James Edward Bell III, of Georgetown, James Walter Fayssoux, Jr., of Greenville, and Kevin R. Dean, of Motley Rice, of Mt. Pleasant, for Respondents.

Chief Justice TOAL.

Following a single vehicle accident, Respondents Sonya L. Watson and the Estate of Patricia Carter filed a products liability suit against Appellants. A jury found against Appellant Ford Motor Company (Ford) and awarded Respondents $18 million in compensatory damages. On appeal, Ford argues that the trial court erred in several respects. After issuing an initial opinion, Respondents and Ford presented this Court with Motions to Clarify. Additionally, Respondents submitted a Petition for Rehearing. We now grant the Motions to Clarify, deny Respondent's Petition for Rehearing, and substitute this opinion in place of the original opinion.

Factual/Procedural Background

On December 11, 1999, Watson was driving a 1995 Ford Explorer along with three other passengers including Patricia Carter. Shortly after entering Interstate 385, Watson lost control of the vehicle, which then veered off the left side of the interstate and rolled four times. Watson and Carter were ejected from the vehicle. Watson suffered severe injuries that rendered her quadriplegic; Carter died in the accident. Respondents filed a products liability suit against Ford, D&D Motors, Inc., and TRW Vehicle Safety Systems, Inc. alleging that the cruise control system and the seatbelts were defective and seeking actual and punitive damages.

At trial, Watson testified that when she entered the interstate, she promptly set the cruise control, but shortly thereafter, the Explorer began to suddenly accelerate. Watson testified that she reached down in an attempt to grasp the gas pedal, but was stopped by her seat belt and that she then pumped her brakes to no avail before crashing. Watson's father testified that on two occasions prior to the accident, the Explorer suddenly accelerated while he was driving. As a result, he took the vehicle into D&D Motors, and the technicians determined that the new floor mats were upside-down and needed to be turned over.1

Respondents' theory of the case was that the Explorer's cruise control system was defective because it allowed electromagnetic interference (EMI) to affect the system. EMI is an unwanted disturbance caused by electromagnetic radiation that interferes with an electric circuit. To support this theory, Respondents presented Dr. Antony Anderson, an electrical engineer from Britain. Dr. Anderson testified as to his theory that EMI can interfere with the speed control component of a cruise control system and cause a vehicle to suddenly and uncontrollably accelerate. He concluded that on the day of the accident, EMI interfered with the Explorer's cruise control system, which caused it to suddenly accelerate and resulted in the accident. Dr. Anderson further opined that Ford could have employed a feasible alternative design to prevent EMI. Specifically, he testified that Ford could have used “twisted pair wiring” in order to prevent EMI from passing between the wires and had Ford used the twisted pair wiring, the accident would not have occurred.

In addition to Dr. Anderson's testimony, Respondents presented testimony from Bill Williams who was qualified as an expert on “cruise control diagnosis” as well as evidence from four witnesses who testified as to other similar incidents in which their Explorers suddenly accelerated without the driver's input.

Ford argued that Dr. Anderson's EMI theory was unreliable and lacked any scientific foundation, and to counter the theory, Ford presented their cruise control expert, Karl Passeger. Passeger testified that EMI signals have no effect on a cruise control system and that the system contains a watchdog feature that automatically checks for improper signals and resets the cruise control computer if it is not operating correctly. Additionally, Ford suggested that the floor mats could have caused the sudden acceleration as they had on previous occasions.

The trial court issued a lengthy jury charge on the law of products liability. During deliberations, the jury submitted a question to the trial court asking, “Can we consider other causes of cruise control malfunction other than EMI?” The trial court responded, “You may consider any and all evidence which was properly admitted at trial and give it the weight that you think it deserves.” The jury found Ford liable on the cruise control products liability claim, but found against Respondents on their defective seat belt claim and on their claim for punitive damages. The jury awarded compensatory damages of $15 million to Watson and $3 million to the Estate of Patricia Carter.

The trial court entered judgment on the jury's verdict. Ford filed post-trial motions, including a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The trial court denied Ford's motions.

We certified this case pursuant to Rule 204(b), SCACR, and Ford presents the following issues on appeal: 2

I. Did the trial court err in qualifying Bill Williams as an expert in cruise control systems?

II. Did the trial court err in allowing Dr. Anderson's expert testimony regarding EMI and alternative feasible design?

III. Did the trial court err in allowing evidence of other incidents of sudden acceleration in Explorers?
IV. Did the trial court err in denying Appellant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict?
Standard of Review

In an action at law, on appeal of a case tried by a jury, this Court may only correct of errors of law. Townes Associates, Ltd. v. City of Greenville, 266 S.C. 81, 85, 221 S.E.2d 773, 775 (1976). The factual findings of the jury will not be disturbed unless no evidence reasonably supports the jury's findings. Id.

Law/Analysis

This is a products liability case in which Respondents allege Appellant produced a defective vehicle. For the sake of context, there are three defects a plaintiff in a products liability lawsuit can allege: 1) a manufacturing defect, 2) a warning defect, and 3) a design defect. When a manufacturing defect claim is made, a plaintiff alleges that a particular product was defectively manufactured. When a warning defect claim is made, a plaintiff alleges that he was not adequately warned of dangers inherent to a product. When a design defect claim is made, a plaintiff alleges that the product at issue was defectively designed, thus causing an entire line of products to be unreasonably dangerous.

In this case, Respondents pursued a design defect claim against Appellant. Such claims necessarily involve sophisticated issues of engineering, technical science, and other complex concepts that are quintessentially beyond the ken of a lay person. In discussing the issue of proof in a defective design case, Professors Hubbard and Felix say, “As with other matters in varying degrees beyond the knowledge and experience of ordinary persons, expert testimony will often be useful and may be necessary.” F. Patrick Hubbard & Robert L. Felix, The South Carolina Law of Torts 313 (3d ed.2004). In most design defect cases, plaintiffs offer expert testimony as evidence to establish their claim. Often design defect claims are also supported by evidence of similar incidents used to bolster plaintiff's design defect allegations. Given the complexity of the allegations involved in this case, Respondents relied on expert testimony to explain their claims and buttressed this testimony with evidence of what were claimed to be similar incidents. It is with this context in mind that we analyze the issues presented.

I. Expert Testimony

The jury and the trial court each have distinct roles and separate responsibilities that they must execute during a trial. The jury serves as the fact finder and is charged with the duty of weighing the evidence admitted at trial and reaching a verdict. The trial court, on the other hand, is charged with the duty of determining issues of law. As a part of this duty, the trial court serves as the gatekeeper and must decide whether the evidence submitted by a party is admissible pursuant to the Rules of Evidence as a matter of law. Once the trial court makes a ruling that the particular evidence is admissible, then it is exclusively within the jury's province to decide how much weight the evidence deserves. Importantly, the trial court is never permitted to second-guess the jury in their fact finding responsibilities unless compelling reasons justify invading the jury's province. See Bailey v. Peacock, 318 S.C. 13, 14, 455 S.E.2d 690, 692 (1995).

The admission of expert testimony is governed by Rule 702, SCRE, which provides:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to
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